Fast company: Jessica Gallagher, 27, Paralympian
Jessica Gallagher is a dual Paralympian. Legally blind, she competes in long jump, javelin, discus and shot put in summer, and skiing in winter. She won bronze in the women’s slalom at the 2010 Vancouver Paralympics, and is set to compete in the same event at the 2014 Winter Paralympics in Sochi, Russia.
[RC] What’s the relationship like between a blind skier and their teammate and guide [another skier, who goes a few seconds ahead and calls back changes in direction and terrain via a radio headset]?
[Jessica Gallagher] It’s paramount. I can’t ski without him. The relationship and the trust in your guide can’t be brought into doubt, not when you’re skiing at 80km/h and don’t know where you’re going. When your guide tells you something, it has to become a subconscious reaction. That relationship is the most important aspect of being a successful vision-impaired ski racer, and the most successful teams are generally the ones that have been together the longest.
[RC] What does skiing feel like when you’re vision impaired?
[JG] When I ski I use my feet, because obviously I can’t see the ground or the gates and the stuff that I’m supposed to be skiing around. I can’t see pitch changes, snow condition changes, gate accommodation changes – which is why the role with the guide is so important. Generally speaking, when you lose a sense, others are heightened, so I have really good hearing and I also have very good feel and touch. When I ski I’m looking for all the sensation I can get through the ground, and also through the headset that I wear to communicate with my guide.
[RC] So it’s true that, along with you, the first Australian to win a winter medal at the Paralympics is an able-bodied man?
[JG] Yes. That’s something that my old guide Eric loves to tell people because he has a medal as well. So he finds it pretty funny that he gets to tell people he’s the first Australian woman to win a Winter Paralympic medal.
[RC] You were ruled out of one Paralympics because your sight wasn’t impaired enough, and then allowed to compete in the next Games because it had deteriorated. That must produce some very conflicting emotions.
[JG] Absolutely. Beijing in 2008 was going to be my first time at a Paralympic Games. So then to get to there and be told the day before the opening ceremony that one eye was eligible but the other was 0 .01 per cent true sighted was heartbreaking. It was so frustrating. And just every emotion possible, because on the one hand I should have been happy my eyesight isn’t as bad as the specialists had said, but then on the other, it was so close to being eligible. It was devastating not being able to compete then, but one of the perks of having a degenerative disease is that it was going to get a little bit worse. And that’s how I was able to compete in Vancouver.
[RC] As well as winning a medal in Vancouver, you had a race where your communication failed with your guide.
[JG] It was definitely the scariest moment of my career at that stage. It happened in the giant slalom, two days after I’d won my Paralympic medal. There was heavy rain, and the moment I pushed out of the start my goggles were completely obliterated by the rain. It was the first time I’d been completely blinded. For someone who has only 8 per cent vision, it’s kind of a big thing. And then water got into our headsets in our helmet, and so they malfunctioned. To yell at my guide and not hear anything back and to know that I couldn’t see anything was incredibly scary. I just went into survival mode and just wanted to get down the course in one piece.
[RC] How do you deal with that fear factor?
[JG] Vision-impaired people like stability. We like going over things and knowing where they are. Whereas when we’re skiing, every single run is different. Fear plays a big part – it’s one of the hardest things, certainly harder than it is physically for me. Most vision-impaired athletes know that you’re going at very, very fast speeds when you can’t actually see where you’re going, and you know the things that could potentially happen if you crash.
[RC] You have to acknowledge it.
[JG] I think one of the biggest things in ski racing is acknowledging that the fear exists. If you’re at the top of a speed course and you don’t acknowledge that what you’re about to do is slightly crazy and you’re going to be very scared, then the course can take over. You know it only takes one tiny, tiny mistake and it can be all over.
[RC] What goes through your mind?
[JG] For me it’s about saying, “Yeah, I am scared, and I know this is going to be really scary”, and just trying to know the guide will also be there and help give you positive reinforcement. For me, it’s just about staying incredibly focused … it’s about trying to push that fear out of your head and knowing that you’re in control of what you’re doing. When it comes to speed, the scariest thing is the aspects where you’re not in control of everything, and vision-impaired people – and people in general – we like to be in control. So it’s just about having that experience and really trusting yourself.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 8, 2014 as "Fast company". Subscribe here.